Why 'Pose' Star Mj Rodriguez Feels Liberated by the Show's Success (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
“What’s it like to be me -- at this very moment?” Mj Rodriguez asks, repeating the question to herself before she begins to answer.
It’s a loaded question for sure, but it’s also an apt one for the breakout star of Pose, FX’s groundbreaking series about the African-American and Latino LGBTQ community and ballroom scene in New York City created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, which returns for season two on June 11 and is in the midst of an Emmys campaign for season one. Last month, she hosted me and a group of reporters on the set of season two, which is still in production, and has appeared on the cover of Out and inside the pages of other magazines. To even schedule a phone call took weeks of coordination. So yes, I’m very curious what it is like to be Mj at this very moment.
“It’s very action-packed and fast, but it’s also liberating and it’s also extremely validating,” Rodriguez finally says. “Opportunities like this, they don’t come as often. And I feel like I’m finally stepping into a place I’ve always wanted to be [in] -- to finally being taken seriously, to be the artist I’ve always wanted to be, and for people to see that I’m completely actualized and that I have more dimensions in me than anyone would think and that I can also vouch and speak for other trans women.”
That validation has been years in the making for the 28-year-old performer, whose identity as a transgender woman gained her some notoriety when she auditioned for the role of Peggy in the Philadelphia production of Hamilton but largely hasn’t afforded her the same opportunities most cisgender actors have in Hollywood. While she managed her way into an open call for Glee years ago, she didn’t make the cut. It was not until 2017, after a string of bit TV parts, that Rodriguez appeared in her first starring role in the independent feature film Saturday Church. The same year, it was announced she had been cast as one of five transgender leads on Pose.
On the series, which debuted in June of last year, Rodriguez plays Blanca Evangelista, a ballroom performer who, after learning she is HIV-positive, steps out on her own to form her own house and establish her own legacy within the underground community. Initially taking place in 1987 -- the second season jumps ahead to 1990 -- Blanca lives in a gritty New York City at the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Admittedly overwhelmed in the beginning -- she was very new to the technical elements on set -- Rodriguez quickly found her footing, gaining “the confidence I had but was still working on,” she says, adding: “I came into myself a little bit more.” But there was no doubting her performance as Blanca. She was a character that immediately resonated with the actress, who says that with each new script, she “noticed she was very much like me.”
Since the series premiered in June of last year, Rodriguez has emerged as one of the fan-favorites among a cast filled with breakout stars, like Billy Porter and Indya Moore, while earning critical acclaim for her defiant yet soulful performance. While Rodriguez is most proud of earlier scenes in the series, like when she gives a lesson about safe sex to one of her young family members, Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), it’s in episode six when she performed a rendition of “Home” from The Wiz during a hospital scene that left audiences in awe of her singing and acting abilities. “Obviously, that was my favorite scene,” she says. “It was a really defining moment for me.”
Now, as Rodriguez is in the middle of filming season two, “I’ve grown more sure of myself and I’ve grown more sure of Blanca,” she says, feeling stronger as an actress and even more assured on set. “It’s just a liberating and great feeling.”
This season, Blanca takes on a more defiant role as the mother of her house. She is busy trying to protect her family from harm but also advocating for the rights of people with HIV and AIDS. While the success of Madonna’s “Vogue” has left the ballroom scene divided, Blanca has a more optimistic perspective. “Finally, the community will be put on a platform to be taken more seriously,” she says of Blanca’s hope for the visibility it’ll bring. She’ll also face a new foe in the form of Patti LuPone, who plays Frederica Norman, a bigoted real estate mogul loosely based on Leona Helmsley. “Blanca is not having it,” Rodriguez teases. But when it comes to working with LuPone, the actress could not be in more awe. “Child, I never thought I would be working with a legend like that. So to be able to share the set with her, that’s pretty epic,” she says. As for getting another chance to sing, she doesn’t know if it’ll happen. “I wish I could have another moment,” she says, putting it out in the universe in hopes that someone in the writers’ room will pick up on it.
In the meantime, season one continues to earn Emmy buzz, with the show vying for an Outstanding Drama Series nomination not to mention recognition for Rodriguez and her co-stars. (Since its premiere, Pose has already racked up two Golden Globe nominations, a Peabody Award, and a MTV Movie & TV Awards nomination for Rodriguez for Breakthrough Performance.) Any recognition by the Television Academy, she says, would mean a lot “because that means the industry not only taking LGBTQ lives seriously, they’re taking trans women of color lives seriously. They’re also seeing that we’re not one-dimensional anymore.”
Thanks to the success of the show, Rodriguez also feels like she’s able to get into auditions she wasn’t able to before. “I feel like I’m finally in a league now if I go to an audition, people will consider me for a [weightier] role,” she says. While she has largely been focused on the show, in between seasons she was able to star alongside Margaret Qualley and Ana Gasteyer in Rhys Ernst’s film adaptation of Ariel Schrag’s novel Adam, which debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. And hopefully soon, there’ll be more time for other opportunities as she continues to grow and establish herself in Hollywood.
“There are still things I’m not ready for yet, but at this time and point in my life, the industry -- the people in these rooms -- are taking me more seriously,” Rodriguez says, adding with a laugh but with no slight on her ambitions: “I’m ready to get a Marvel role, honey.”